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Star Trek – The Devil in the Dark (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

There are any number of ways to “get into” Star Trek, to jump on board the cult phenomenon. Despite decades of continuity, a lot of the franchise is accessible on its own terms, and it’s easy enough to come across a list of recommended classic episodes for a neophyte to sample. There are over seven hundred hours of Star Trek, so there’s something for everybody. And it’s perfectly possible to tailor a recommendation to the new viewer’s preferences.

Want proof that Star Trek can do credible drama? Stick on The City on the Edge of Forever. Fascinated by Spock? Try Amok Time. Want to watch William Shatner take on another leading character with a similar amount of gravitas? Give Space Seed a go. Want some high-concept sci-fi android stuff? Maybe What Are Little Girls Made Of? is right up your street. Want a contemporary commentary on the Vietnam War? Watch A Private Little War.

However, if you asked me to recommend an example of the franchise’s philosophy and its humanist values, executed with a superb level of craftsmanship, The Devil in the Dark is really the only choice. There’s a reason that Arthur C. Clarke considers it to be the most memorable episode of Star Trek ever produced.

Spock would have to have a heart of stone not be affected by this...

Spock would have to have a heart of stone not be affected by this…

Of course, the episode is now known for its twist. And it isn’t as though the twist was anything especially novel at the time. Several other earlier examples of “mankind is the monster” have become genre classics, most notably The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, an episode of The Twilight Zone which aired in March 1960. Sympathy for the monster itself stretches back even further, and was a notable ingredient in the classic Universal Horror films like Dracula or Frankenstein.

Still, it’s a good idea and a great hook, and part of what works so well about The Devil in the Dark is the way that writer Gene L. Coon holds off the reveal. Coon is the writer responsible for Arena, so he is well-versed in the art of hiding a moral message in what seems like trashy pulp entertainment. After all, Coon could turn an episode about Kirk wrestling a giant lizard man into an allegory about colonialism, so it feels fitting that he could turn an adventure about a murderous pizza monster into an exploration of cultural misunderstanding.

"All right, men. Some, if not most, of you might not make it back alive..."

“All right, men. Some, if not most, of you might not make it back alive…”

It is remarkable to think that The Devil in the Dark originated because Coon simply wanted to craft a story about a funny costume that special effects wizard Janos Prohaska had created. As William Shatner notes in Star Trek Memories:

For example, The Devil in the Dark stands as prime example of prime Coon. It all started with a blob of rubber. You see, a guy named Janos Prohaska, who spent his career designing, building and acting as half the creatures, monsters and apes in Hollywood, worked with us quite often on Star Trek. Over the course of our three seasons, he’d create the Mugatu for A Private Little War (actually, what he created was the Gumatu; it was only when De Kelley kept repeatedly blowing his lines and saying “Mugatu” that we changed it), and the rock-man Yarnek who forces Kirk to fight alongside Abraham Lincoln in The Savage Curtain.

However, on this particular occasion Janos had shown up on the lot all excited about this enormous rather nondescript rubbery blob that he’d invented. I took a look, and I have to admit, I came away less than impressed. To me, this thing just looked like a lumpy piece of indoor/outdoor carpet. But Janos was obviously excited, and he wanted to show us what this creature could do. So now he takes a chicken, a dead store-bought chicken, and he just kinda throws it into the dirt. Then he smiles at us. Nine of us have a clue, why he’s smiling, but he’s smiling nonetheless. He then gets under this blobbish creation and kind of wiggles up over the top of the chicken, all the while grunting, roaring and trying his best to sell the idea that this thing is alive. Now he lurches forward once more, and out of the back of this “monster” comes a complete chicken skeleton. We all immediately begin laughing, and Coon, who’s got tears in his eyes, is yelling, “That’s GREAT!!! I LOVE that!! We HAVE to use that!!!”

It sounds like a recipe for disaster, a story crafted around a clever workplace gag, but it is to the credit of Coon that it works.

Kirk likes his coffee like his likes his devils... in the dark...

Kirk likes his coffee like his likes his devils… in the dark…

Part of the reason it works is because Coon commits to the relatively cheesy B-movie set up whole-heartedly. There is murder and mayhem in dark caves, and mine workers are reduced to nothing more than burn marks on the cold floor by an assailant hidden for most of the episode. “I never realised before how dark it is down here,” one ill-fated character notes in the cold open. Trying to put his mind at ease, Vanderberg assures him, “Somebody can arrive in three minutes.” Our dead man walking replies, “A lot can happen in three minutes.”

From that opening scene, it feels like The Devil in the Dark will be a standard thriller, a tense adventure pitting Kirk against some sinister monster lurking in the darkness. “When that creature appears, men die,” Vanderberg warns Kirk, apparently taking it upon himself to provide the episode’s melodrama. He orders, bluntly, “You find that monster and kill it.” The pretense continues, even after Kirk’s first encounter with the Horta. As his red shirts gather around, Kirk looks after the creature, informing his men that the stakes have been raised. “There’s nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal.”

A dynamic duo...

A dynamic duo…

Coon even finds time to reference classic horror movie tropes for suspense. At one point, Kirk is attacked as an act ends, only for the show to reveal that it was just a coincidental rock slide. Chasing the monster, Kirk and Spock reach a fork in the road. “Should we separate?” Spock asks, his pool of knowledge obviously not including too many horror films. Kirk demonstrates that he makes a far more convincing science-fiction hero than he would a horror protagonist, and does the maths. “Two tunnels. Two of us. We separate.”

Again, Coon pulls a pretty neat trick on the audience here – one that works just as well when he employs it again in Errand of Mercy. Coon counts on the audience to recognise Kirk as the protagonist of the story, and expects that we will be quite likely to take his opinion at face value. The writer then tricks the audience by essentially having Kirk make the wrong decision, counting on Shatner’s charisma and our good will to carry us along until the point where the script suddenly twists and Kirk’s opinion is proven to be wrong. He is, after all, only human.

Enemy mine...

Enemy mine…

So when Spock starts to suspect that the Horta might have some reason for the violence, Kirk is dismissive. Briefing the men, Spock instructs, “This particular group will move out beyond that area in all directions in an effort to surround it, and possibly capture it.” Kirk immediately countermands his science officer. “Your orders are shoot to kill,” he orders, clearly motivated by the loss of life. While Spock’s scientific curiosity is purely rational, Kirk’s position is still defensible. “I will lose no more men. The creature will be killed on sight and that’s the end of it.” Coon counts on our sympathy for Kirk’s position to help keep the suspense ticking over.

Even in the short exchange that follows, where Kirk seems to try to push Spock to the sidelines so that his rationality can’t interfere with the hunt, Coon keeps it relatively light and knows better than to have Kirk force the issue. “Mister Spock,” Kirk orders. “I want you to assist Scotty in maintaining that makeshift circulating pump.” Spock points out that this isn’t a decision motivated by logic. “Mister Scott has far more knowledge of nuclear reactors than I do,” Spock observes. Then, pointedly, “You’re aware of that.” Kirk didn’t want Spock out of the way for the good of the project.

I think McCoy just laid the foundations for a solid relationship with the Horta...

I think McCoy just laid the foundations for a solid relationship with the Horta…

Kirk then falls back on the idea that it is stupid to risk the two highest ranking officers on the ship. It’s an argument that he must know is baloney, even before Spock shreds it with those handy statistics Coon liked to give the science officer. After all, Kirk and Spock tend to do all manner of crazy stuff together. If this wasn’t an issue in A Taste of Armageddon, why is it coming up now? The obvious answer is that Kirk doesn’t want Spock doing anything crazy like trying to capture the creature alive – both for Spock’s own safety and the safety of everybody else in the caves.

This suggests that Kirk has lost a bit of objectivity, and Coon handles the conversation well. Kirk accepts that Spock has out-reasoned him, and gracefully allows the Vulcan to remain with him in the caves. He doesn’t force the issue, and the two end the conversation on a joke. So there’s something quite unsettling about the exchange, because of what is implied, but Coon wisely resists the urge to make it anything more than subtext. This allows Coon to keep some sense of ambiguity around the Horta, while also making the eventual reveal feel like a logical development.

What a view...

What a view…

It’s worth noting that Spock – despite his logical interest in preserving the creature – is not willing to risk his friend’s life to save the Horta. When Kirk reveals that he has found the creature, Spock advises, “Kill it, Captain, quickly.” Kirk concedes, “It’s not making any threatening moves, Spock.” His second-in-command counters, “You don’t dare take the chance, Captain. Kill it.” When Kirk points out that this is a pretty stark reversal from Spock’s previously articulated “please don’t kill it” stance, Spock explains, “Jim, your life is in danger. You can’t take the risk.”

That’s practically an emotional outburst coming from Spock, and it offers yet more proof (if proof is needed) that Spock is not as emotionless as he might claim. It also suggests the depth of friendship between Spock and Kirk that Spock is willing to completely abandon his rational logic when Kirk is in danger. There’s no question that Spock would have refused to kill the creature in Kirk’s place, so his insistence that Kirk murder the Horta is an emotional rather than rational response.

It's behind you!

It’s behind you!

And then we reach the twist. It turns out that the Horta is not a monster. It is, to quote Kirk, “intelligent, peaceful, mild.” Kirk explains that the whole situation arose as a fatal misunderstanding between the Horta and the Federation. “She had no objection to sharing this planet with you, till you broke into her nursery and started destroying her eggs. Then she fought back in the only way she knew how, as any mother would fight when her children are in danger.” Much like in Arena, it seems that the Federation was in the wrong here.

Indeed, Coon’s trademark cynicism is in full effect here. Not only does he write Kirk as a character whose emotionalism obscures his objectivity, he also portrays the Federation as a less than idyllic political entity. This might be the future, but the organisation is still driven by the concept of supply and demand. While the intrusion into Gorn space in Arena was driven by arrogance and ignorance, the murder of countless Horta infants is the result of ignorance and material greed.

I like how the red shirts are smart enough to stand behind Kirk...

I like how the red shirts are smart enough to stand behind Kirk…

Vanderberg, the mining director, makes it clear that there are demands that have to be met. “If the Federation wants pergium, then you’re going to have to do something about it.” It seems like Kirk’s involvement has almost been extorted from Starfleet, a concession to the material needs of the organisation. When Kirk states the Federation needs the pergium, Vanderberg promises, “You’ll have it. Just find that creature, whatever it is. I’ve got a quota to meet.”

At the same time, Coon hints at a social divide that exists between the miners and the crew of the Enterprise. When Kirk vows to find the creature, Appel responds with thinly-veiled contempt. “You’re all pretty tough, aren’t you?” he muses. “Starship, phaser banks. You can’t get your starship down in the tunnels.” The miners don’t hesitate to turn on the Starfleet officers when it looks like Kirk might be making a decision they do not agree with. Compare this to the resignation felt by the terraformers in Home Soil, and you get a sense of the differences between the classic Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation.



Indeed, Coon categorises that miners as a colonial power, annexing something they feel rightly belongs to them. After being informed there aren’t enough phasers for his men, Vanderberg vows, “Then we’ll use clubs. We’re not being chased away from here. We’re staying.” Vanderberg makes it sound as if the Horta is some alien force invading his home, and that he is refusing to yield to some foreign invasion. This feels remarkably in keeping with Coon’s depiction of the Federation’s colonial attitudes throughout his scripts.

On journeying through the first season of Star Trek, it’s quite remarkable how thoroughly the show has engaged with the counter-culture of the late sixties. This Side of Paradise was a criticism of those aspects of counter-culture, as identified by Theodore Roszak, who simply wanted to “cop out” of modern America. A Taste of Armageddon and Errand of Mercy would serve as condemnations of the Cold War mentality. Vietnam loomed in the background of both stories, despite the fact that mainstream media were reluctant to devote coverage to the war, for fear of offending advertisers.

In space, no one can hear you mine...

In space, no one can hear you mine…

The Devil in the Dark offers a glimpse of environmentalism, a movement that had begun to develop during the fifties and sixties, and would lead to the establishment of the first “Earth day” in 1970. As Samuel P. Hays notes in The Environmental Movement, this political movement was quite distinct from the much older “conservation” movement:

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new set of public concerns began to take shape and come to be called the “environmental movement.” This differed markedly from the older “conservation movement”, expressing objectives of environmental quality and ecology rather than efficient material resource development and management, and constituting a broad, mass movement far more so than did earlier conservation efforts.

Although efforts to preserve natural resources and park land dated back into the nineteenth century, conservation had generally been seen as a relatively elitist political cause, counting Teddy Roosevelt among its earliest high-profile proponents. It is worth noting that some scholars (for example, Thomas Raymond Wellock in Preserving the Nation: The Conservation and Environmental Movements, 1870-2000) challenge this view. Despite this, it remains widely held, and some make suggest that the modern environmentalist movement might be drifting back to that model.

Dynamic action figure pose #1...

Dynamic action figure pose #1…

However, during the sixties, an effort was made to popularise the movement, even playing on the pacifist “give peace a chance” slogan by offering “give Earth a chance” as a mantra of these modern environmentalists, as noted by Adam Rome in “Give Earth a Chance”: The Environmental Movement and the Sixties:

The popularity of the “Give Earth a Chance” slogan was not happenstance. The rise of the environmental movement owed much to the events of the 1960s. Yet scholars have not thus far done enough to place environmentalism in the context of the times. The literature on the sixties slights the environmental movement, while the work on environmentalism neglects the political, social, and cultural history of the sixties.

The environmentalist movement was a part of the cultural shift during the sixties.

Dynamic action figure pose #1...

Dynamic action figure pose #1…

Indeed, The Politics of Ecology: Environmentalism and Liberalism in the 1960s argues that environmentalism fit quite well with the sorts of sixties liberal politics of which Star Trek was so fond:

For most Americans the terms “environmentalist” and “liberal” are more or less synonymous. For many historians the set of ideas called environmentalism and the set of ideas called liberalism are similarly—and for similar reasons—connected. But it is not at all clear why these associations make sense. The environmental historian Roderick Nash provides one explanation for the pairing of environmentalism and liberalism in The Rights of Nature, where he argues that “one can regard environmental ethics as marking out the farthest limits of American liberalism.” For Nash, the association is a direct one: environmentalism and liberalism are related because the one is an expression of the other. Liberalism, in Nash’s view, centers on granting rights based on intrinsic worth to the previously marginalized and defenseless. As liberal thinkers have argued for the moral consideration of more and more subjects—a process that Nash calls the “ethical extension of liberalism”—they have helped break down prejudices based on social distinctions like class, race, and gender. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this ethical extension came to include all people, and then expanded its reach to nonhuman animals and, finally, the entire natural world. Environmentalism, in this schema, is the logical extension of liberal thought and the ultimate expression of liberal ethics.

It fits remarkably well with the ethics of Star Trek. The environmentalist themes of The Devil in the Dark feel like a logical extension of the show’s political viewpoint.

The ball is in Spock's court now...

The ball is in Spock’s court now…

It is interesting, then, that those same politics feel so strangely at odds with show’s resolution to The Man Trap. In that early episode, Kirk and his crew were faced with a similar problem. A deadly creature, the last of its kind, had been killing those humans who had wandered on to its old dying planet, completely unaware of the alien’s very existence until it was too late. Kirk decided to kill the creature, and the only objection offered was that this creature was the last of its kind.

In The Man Trap, Kirk refuses to accept the comparison that Professor Crate makes between the salt vampire and the buffalo, and McCoy phasers the last such creature out of existence. He argues that the creature is killing his men, and that it must be stopped. Spock advances no serious argument that the creature has any intrinsic worth, and so it is killed. The last salt vampire dies, and the species disappears from the universe.

Moving negotiations to the next phaser...

Moving negotiations to the next phaser…

There are several key differences, of course. The Horta isn’t inherently hostile. The salt vampire feeds on humans, but the Horta only kills to protect its young. While the Horta is capable of communicating with Kirk and Spock, The Man Trap leaves some measure of ambiguity about just how intelligent the salt vampire actually is. Is it capable of acting on anything other than instinct? Is it just a feeding machine? The Horta could coexist with mankind, but the salt vampire offered a dilemma. You could probably keep the salt vampire alive in captivity on a diet of salt tablets (like Crater seemed to be trying to do), but would that be any sort of life worth living?

Still, it feels like a dramatic reversal, even if there are clear differences. Are only life forms capable of communicating worth preserving? Does our obligation to protect the natural habitat extend only to those creatures who are not hostile towards us? Are we justified in exterminating those creatures who cannot co-exist peacefully with us? Is conservation only justified where a creature like the Horta can offer some material reward in return for its survival?

Spock is about to rock his world...

Spock is about to rock his world…

It is often quite difficult to try to fashion a cohesive theory of anything within Star Trek. After all, the show is the product of countless writers working on countless pitches, with unique perspectives on everything. It is inevitable, given the different hands at work in the show’s formation, that there will be some minor inconsistencies. Trying to shape all those different ideas into one easy-to-digest statement or position feels like a rather futile effort. It is the nature of episodic television that such contradictions will inevitably occur.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that general patterns may emerge, and that we can strike off a few examples as part of the inevitable standard deviation. In a franchise this large and this vast, any attempt to draw a big picture must be made in broad strokes. Gene Coon’s philosophical position on environmentalism and conservationism seems quite clear, and it seems fair to say that it differs from the outlook of George Clayton Johnson, the writer of The Man Trap.

Is the situation too hot to handle?

Is the situation too hot to handle?

Still, excluding The Man Trap, it seems fair to suggest that Star Trek has a relatively strong environmentalist philosophy, and it’s telling that the conservationalist argument is made by Spock, the show’s voice of reason. “If it is the only survivor of a dead race,” he observes, “to kill it would be a crime against science.” As Dolly Jørgensen notes in Star Trek and History, this is a telling line:

Spock’s sentiment is not a moral or ethical argument against extinction, but rather a scientific one. Spock believes the creature would be useful as an object of study because it is the first silicon-based life-form the Federation has ever encountered. This anthropocentric take on extinction reflects both Spock’s scientific orientation and the common 1960s environmentalist approach of focusing on the human benefit of killing animals.

It’s also worth noting that the most financially successful of the show’s first ten movies, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, also had a strong environmentalist message. Given that The Devil in the Dark is widely considered among the best Star Trek shows ever produced, it seems fair to suggest that the series handles the theme quite well.

Don't egg him on...

Don’t egg him on…

Even outside of all this fascinating stuff, The Devil in the Dark is really just a superb example of a typical Star Trek episode. You get the emotional and logical conflict between Kirk and Spock. You get a truly alien alien. You get a mystery. You get some damn fine production design, including those wonderfully stylised and atmospheric cave sets and a wonderful musical score.

Everybody brings their A-game. Leonard Nimoy continues to demonstrate just how invaluable he is to the franchise. That scene where Spock mind melds with the Horta requires one hell of a tough sell. Given it’s Nimoy acting opposite a giant pizza, he does an amazing job. Shatner is also on fine form here, giving us a flawed Kirk who remains curiously charming despite the fact that he almost murdered an innocent alien. Even McCoy gets some great moments here (“I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer and “by golly, Jim, I’m beginning to think I can cure a rainy day“), despite the fact that he is mostly relegated to the sidelines. What more could you ask for?

Oh, shoot...

Oh, shoot…

The Devil in the Dark is certainly among the very best episodes of this first season, which is enough to rank it among the best of the 700 episodes the franchise ever produced. It’s a perfect slice of Star Trek, from the look and the feel of the episode right down to the chewy moral centre. If you are thinking about jumping on board Star Trek, you could certainly do a lot worse than trying The Devil in the Dark.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

4 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on BookRepublic.

  2. Indeed.

  3. Agree strongly with your appraisal. This is the episode I reach for if I have only one hour to convince a stranger of the depth of Trek. “That thing’s killed fifty of my men!” “And you’ve killed thousands of her children!” Oh dear god, WE’RE the devils in the dark. The original airing hit the Vietnam era full in the face. It remains a wakeup call to any generation inclined to buy into “different equals dangerous” xenophobia.

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